February 20, 2012
For the past couple days, I’ve been listening nonstop to one of the soundtracks of my childhood: straight-up, good old-fashioned African-American gospel music. And for that, I can thank Sister Whitney Houston, whose Newark, N.J., funeral at the New Hope Baptist Church was broadcast live around the world on Saturday, giving fans like me who never knew her a chance to say farewell in the way that we black folks do. In a “homegoing service,” one that focuses on the heavenly destination of the person being celebrated.
So sitting here on the other side of the world, in a quiet French village far, far away from the urban center that is Newark, I watched Whitney’s funeral on CNN.com and “had church” right here, all by myself. Such is the power of modern Internet technology—and the far more enduring power of gospel music and the Christian source from which it flows.
Forgoing a huge public spectacle, Grammy Award winner Cissy Houston instead took her internationally famous daughter back home to New Hope, where young “Nippy” got her start singing in the junior choir. (How many of us went to churches with such choirs back in the day? But almost none of us had a future Whitney up there singing solo!) Cissy herself still directs the church’s Youth Inspirational Choir, has been an active leader in New Hope’s music ministry for decades … and in her wisdom allowed a single video camera to record and share the hours-long homegoing service through live video. What a tribute to Whitney, whose soulful gospel singing was downright angelic.
Pastor Marvin Winans—who officiated the service and delivered the eulogy—thanked Cissy for holding the service at New Hope. As he said, “That took a lot of courage. And because of that, you brought the world to church today.” What a blessing for folks like me—and millions of fans in every corner of the globe that got a front-row seat to an authentic, real-as-it-gets African-American worship service and gospel music celebration. (How many of you noticed the church nurses in their crisp white uniforms, doing what they do at black churches Sunday in and Sunday out? And did you see the one handing tissues to a teary Alicia Keys at the piano? It felt almost surreal.)
For me—the granddaughter of a black Baptist pastor and the daughter of an amazingly talented gospel organist and pianist—Saturday’s service took me straight back to my childhood church roots. In Chicago, I grew up with a dad who as a “P.K.,” or “preacher’s kid,” started playing piano at church while a pre-teen. For some reason, it seems that if you show any musical inclinations and talent and your father is a black pastor, becoming a musician at the same church is like a rite of passage. My dad Farnell played for the Sunday School at the Greater Salem Baptist Church when he was 12, then moved up to playing for morning worship by the time he was 14. Growing up on Chicago’s South Side, my sister and I constantly were treated to my dad’s gospel writing and playing, as he was the Minister of Music at the Oakdale Covenant Church for nearly 30 years. During that time, he recorded two albums with Oakdale’s choirs and one with a couple of like-minded gospel musician friends.
When my sister and I were kids, we’d sometimes accompany Farnell to choir rehearsals, where he would good-naturedly bark at the sopranos, altos, tenors and basses, imploring them to E-NUN-CI-ATE when they sang, knowing the power of gospel isn’t in its toe-tapping, sway-inducing sounds, but in the words.
Transported back home and back in time while watching the funeral on my laptop, I dabbed at my teary eyes. Donnie McClurkin’s incredibly powerful rendition of “Stand” did it, a song that has always touched me every time I’ve heard it sung at a church. And just as black church ministers will do, letting the “Spirit have its way” during the service, Pastor Winans called his musical family members to the pulpit to deliver an impromptu but right-on-time version of their hit “Tomorrow,” complete with an encouraging “Sing y’all,” from some listener.
But thanks to Facebook and Twitter, I wasn’t watching the funeral alone. Although many of you know I’m not always a big fan of either, I was all over both of them during the service, sharing comments, posting “Amen” to others.
All weekend and even today, I’ve been on YouTube, searching for my gospel favorites like it’s Old Home Week. Songs like Tramaine Hawkins’ “The Potter’s House.” Walter Hawkins and the Love Alive Choir’s “Come by Here,” “Be Grateful,” and “Thank You (Lord for All You’ve Done for Me).” And who remembers the Hawkins Family’s “What Is This?” I felt like I was a kid, again listening to my dad’s former Senior Choir back at Oakdale.
If Saturday’s funeral wasn’t enough, Yolanda Adams tore it up at that evening’s 43rd NAACP Image Awards with a choir-backed tribute to Whitney. Adams SANG “I Love the Lord,” a classic Houston made her own (along with the Georgia Mass Choir) for the soundtrack of “The Preacher’s Wife.” And did Yolanda preach that song?? Famous folks in the audience were teary-eyed and nearly testifying when the camera panned the crowd.
That’s what I love about gospel music: whether you’re filthy rich or lacking that proverbial pot, it’s a great equalizer. Those who allow the music and the Spirit’s message to touch their hearts find themselves responding, regardless of age, social class or race. And you don’t have to be a Christian to feel it, either.
We didn’t want to see Whitney go. But perhaps in death, sharing the soul-stirring gospel music she loved with the world was her greatest gift of all.
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